Hibernian’s new signing Neal Eardley has battled back from a clutch of serious injuries and been left to ponder what might have been as Wales have scaled new heights without him. But, with a fresh start and a few months to impress, he is keen to put all that behind him.
The former Blackpool and Birmingham full-back is hoping to get the opportunity to earn the praise of the Easter Road fans and ultimately encourage his international manager to cast another enquiring glance his way.
The 27-year-old, who has been capped 16 times, had been a free agent before Neil Lennon took a punt on him. A couple of cruciate ligament injuries and a dislocated shoulder meant he had managed just over 20 games in the past three and a half years but that has only made him hungrier according to his new boss.
“When you’ve had injuries like that and get the opportunity to come back, well, you don’t realise what you have until you’re on the outside looking in. I know that from my own experiences with a long-term injury,” said Lennon. “So there is a hunger about him, I recognise that. His attitude has been brilliant. It’s OK saying he’s thankful for the chance. You have to make the most of any chance – and he’s done that.
“I really like his attitude, he’s a good pro. And he can really handle the ball, which is an important attribute for the modern-day full-back. He knows the position very well. We’ve got two very experienced right-backs right now who can dovetail very well.”
The man currently in possession of the starting place is the club captain but his manager is keen that even the man who eventually lifted the Scottish Cup for the club should face competition.
“There’s a lot of quality here and a manager who wants success,” acknowledged Eardley, who managed to get a couple of development games under his belt while on trial and, confident he is close to full match fitness, he is eyeing a place in the squad for tomorrow’s fixture with Dundee United.
“I am not naive enough to think I can walk into the team, I will have to work hard. David Gray (pictured) is a big character in the dressing room and is a top player and captain for this club. It is up to the manager to decide what team he picks but I will work hard in training and hopefully get an opportunity.
“It’s been a very frustrating three years from a personal point of view. I don’t like to make excuses but the injuries I had were really bad ones. Birmingham was a great club with good people but the injuries were just so unfortunate.
“It was not like it was a recurring problem I had. It was two cruciate ligament injuries on either side of a dislocated shoulder.
“It is very difficult. That was the first serious injury I had. Making my debut at 17 and playing up until 24, 25 with no injuries, I’m thankful for that. I was very unfortunate to pick up the cruciate injury but I felt I came back from that a lot stronger and a lot fitter. I thought I was in the best shape of my life. The following season, it was a bit indifferent, I was in and out of the team and there were a couple of niggling injuries.
“We had a new manager that came in and the team did well so it was difficult to get in the side. The following year was really positive again, managed to get myself in the side, then I got a dislocated shoulder and I was back out. I got myself back in and got the cruciate. I felt as if I was constantly trying to get back and wasn’t fit really.”
It was also poor timing in the context of Eardley’s international aspirations. Having featured under John Toshack, he admits he lost his way slightly during the Gary Speed era. It looked like he would be given another chance under Chris Coleman but fate intervened.
“I was picked for one of Coleman’s first squads but I did my cruciate playing for Birmingham,” he added. “It was just unfortunate and part of me will always wonder if I hadn’t done my knee would I still have been involved and would I have continued to play for Wales. Now that I am here I hope that I can bring something to the table and force my way into the Hibs team and then think about the Wales international set-up further down the line.”